Simple steps for a painless literature review

Where do you start?

You can begin with finding one useful reference and then trace back from the references to research within it that you think will add something to your knowledge base. But be warned. This may not reveal a comprehensive overview of a topic or debate. Tanya Horsley, Orvie Dingwall and Margaret Sampson (2011) state that for systematic reviews, this method is of limited benefit. They described 12 of the 13 studies they examined which used this method as having weak study designs with non-generalisability of research findings. They recommended that a broader approach by searching database should be used to complement this.

So while you could start here, it is not a shortcut to the finish line.

How often have you become overwhelmed while reading literature?

How do you arrange the useful? How do you keep what doesn’t look useful in a place where you can access it later, in case you change your mind because of something new you have found? If your research is truly cutting edge, there may be very limited information to be gained from most of the previous research. But if you are writing a thesis, you will need to show that you have looked at it anyway.

Mary Jalongo and Olivia Saracho in their 2016 book, Writing for Publication have some great tips which you can use to navigate your way through the maze of literature you might read.

Cut the information into smaller bits

Create a mind map and group ideas together but not in the most obvious way. Look for trends, themes, patterns rather than names and dates, for example.

Identify the individual parts of your review’s story

Often, this is from the general to the specific, but not always. For example, you could trace research streams and themes over time. You could tell the story of the refinement of a process for different purposes. You could write about the evolution of a set of international laws and treaties. Use a table or a diagram to organise the research. You might end up with several tables and diagrams. It doesn’t all need to go into one.

Critique otherswork

Consider the contributions and limitations of all of the research. If a research study’s aim was to be exploratory, it might not have a sample size that was enough for anything more.

Record your analysis simply but completely

Put details of the focus, contributions, and limitations in your table or colour code your diagram accordingly.

So what is considered very good practice?

Let’s look at some main criteria for a publishable literature review. These are not presented in any order of priority:

A theoretical base of some sort that is clearly stated

Thoroughness (e.g., searching the related literature in other fields)

Authoritative sources (naturally)

Discussion of criteria for inclusion/exclusion of studies and method used

Principles that reflect synthesis (i.e., themes, patterns, strands)

A logical argument indicated by headings

A critique of the studies that identifies strengths and weaknesses

A description of the “landscape” of the entire body of research and its context

Finally, in a literature review you want to publish, you would add your original contribution about why this review showed something new. In a thesis, you would use this literature review to identify where there is a need for the research which you will do. (You might have had the research topic in mind already and are using the literature review to justify researching it.)

I hope you have found some of these ideas useful, to follow on from the last blog about reviewing literature. My idea was to break down what looks like a huge undertaking into smaller and very doable tasks. Most importantly, give yourself breaks!